Designing a poker tournament blinds schedule
After choosing a poker tournament structure, setting up the blinds schedule is the most meaningful decision a would-be tournament director has to make. The blinds schedule is one of many factors that will determine how long the tournament lasts. It can also affect the luck/skill balance required to be crowned the tournament’s champion.
If you’ve never played a poker tournament before, you might be wondering what a blinds schedule even is. When a poker tournament begins, the tournament director starts a clock. At a regularly scheduled interval, the value of the blinds go up. That’s all there is to it. The purpose of this is to make it necessary to actually win pots fairly regularly to stay in the game. Otherwise, a tournament could go on for an eternity with players trading chips back and forth, winning enough to cover the blinds, but never enough to bust each other out. Escalating the blinds as the night goes on forces a confrontation eventually, when a player simply cannot afford to bide their time any longer.
In this post, we’ll discuss a few simple methods for making a basic blinds schedule. For something that’s so critical to a tournament’s success, it doesn’t have to be complicated!
More of an art than a science
The first key point to remember when creating a blinds schedule is that every group of players is different. What works well for one group may not work for another. If you host an aggressive group of players, the tournament will go much faster than it would for a more laid-back group that plays very tightly. How long players take to act on their hands will also influence the speed of the tournament. Once you have your first blinds schedule created, you can use your experience from your first tournament to make adjustments for your second time hosting.
Another thing to keep in mind is that, though poker is a game of skill, it is still based on a randomness generator in the form of a deck of cards. No amount of adjustment will ever be able to totally account for the plain variance that the cards will produce. If the cards feel like causing a bunch of big-money pots that become bad-beat stories, you’re going to have a quick tournament. If everyone is card dead, the tournament is going to drag. That is something nobody has control over, so don’t sweat it.
The first and the last blind
The first step to designing a blinds schedule is to calculate the first blind level and the projected last blind level. This ending level is when the tournament should theoretically end. Remember, though, you cannot guarantee when a tournament is going to end. This is just for planning purposes.
For the sake of simplicity, it’s easiest to set the blinds by taking into account only the big blind. The small blind is usually set at half the amount of the big blind.
The first blind level is easy to set. In most tournaments, the big blind will be 1–2% of the starting stack. The higher you set this level, the shorter the tournament will be. For example, in a T1000 tournament (a tournament where a player starts with 1,000 tournament chips), the first blind level will usually be T5-T10 (1%) or T10-T20 (2%).
Next, you need to determine the projected last blind level. A good rule of thumb is that it should be 5% of the chips in play. To determine this, multiply the number of players by the starting chip stack and take 5% of the total. So for a T1000 tournament with fifteen players, there will be T15,000 in circulation, meaning the the final big blind level should be around T750 or so.
Tournaments with rebuys and add-ons
If you plan to offer rebuys and add-ons, these need to be accounted for in your blinds schedule. To do this, you will have to estimate how many rebuys or add-ons you will sell and add these into your total amount of chips in circulation.
Using the previous example of a fifteen-player T1000 tournament, if you offer rebuys and estimate that three players will rebuy (a total of T3,000 in rebuys), then T18,000 will be in play, and the last big blind level should be around T900.
Note that this is a place where past experience will guide you. If you offer rebuys at all, you will not know for sure how many people will want to take you up on the offer. You could have some big pots early on that bust out many players, and they’re raring to get back in the thick of it and they all rebuy. Or the players that bust out may opt to cut their losses and go home. All you can do is make an educated guess based on previous tournaments.
Timing and intermediate levels
Now that you have your start and end points, you just need to find the parts in-between. This is what will ultimately determine the length of your tournament, and also the skill level needed to win it.
The first thing to account for is your time budget for the tournament. By talking to your players, you should have a good idea for how long they would want to be stuck with you playing poker. Most home tournaments last for four to six hours, so this is a realistic goal to shoot for.
Next, you’ll need to decide how often the blinds should increase. This can be anywhere between fifteen minutes and an hour. The more frequently the blinds increase, the more frenzied the pace of the tournament. However, a slow schedule can make the tournament feel like it’s going much slower than it actually is. The 20 to 30 minute range seems to be a happy medium for most players.
Now, take your time budget and divide it by the blind interval. This is how many blind levels you need. Now you can set each blind level. Each blind level should be no more than double the preceding one. Keep the progression as even as possible. A sudden spike in the blinds places undue weight on the hands after them, thereby increasing the role of luck in the tournament.
After you have created your blinds schedule, you’ll need to make some adjustments to it. Check to make sure that each blinds level is compatible with the chips that will be available. For example, you don’t want to have a blinds level of 600-1200 if the smallest chip available is a T500.
You should also avoid making blind levels that will require chips that are very small relative to the size of the blinds. A blind of, say, 2250 would be a bad idea, for example, since it would require using two T25 chips to post blinds. Having to deal with T25 chips when thousands of chips are being won or lost each hand is just a nuisance. Making them unnecessary allows you to color them up and remove them from circulation.
You should also add three to five more blinds levels after the “final” level. This gives you some wiggle room just in case the tournament runs longer than forecast.
You can also use your blinds schedule to designate when breaks will occur. How many breaks, how long they should last, and when they should be, will depend on the particulars of your tournament. For an evening tournament, for example, you may want to schedule a thirty-minute dinner break midway through. On the other hand, a tournament that starts later may expect players to eat before the tournament starts, and only have fifteen-minute breaks for players to stretch their legs. Shorter tournaments might not need breaks at all.
Whatever you decide, be sure to clearly mark the breaks on the blind schedule, between blind levels. Be sure everyone is clear on how long each break is. The tournament should resume promptly after the break ends. It’s not fair to the players if some tables start on time and others wait for straggling players. Be clear what will happen if a player does not return on time (e.g. they will still be required to post blinds in their absence without getting the chance to play their hand).
Ending the tournament
Your tournament should end organically about the same time that you had planned on when you created your blinds schedule. However, keep in mind that any number of things can occur that cause your tournament to end early or late.
If it looks like a tournament is going to run late, you can adjust the blinds schedule while the tournament is in progress. Raising the blinds should help bring the tournament to an end quicker. However, this opens you up to accusations that you only edited the schedule to benefit so-and-so who was chip leader when you made the change. It’s best to avoid doing this if at all possible.
Another thing you can do to hasten the end of a tournament is to add antes at a certain level. At this point, each player will be required to post an ante on each hand, in addition to the big blind and small blind being posted as normal. This is only really useful if there are still several players on each table. In heads-up play, it is functionally the same as increasing the blinds.
If all else fails, you can set a time that the tournament will end, no matter if people are still playing or not. This is particularly useful if there’s some external restriction on how long the tournament can go, like the venue’s closing time, the host’s bedtime, etc. The best way to do this is to choose the time before the tournament and include it in the schedule. If that’s not possible, be sure to give ample warning before the appointed time arrives so players can adjust their play strategies accordingly. When the time ends, the player with the most chips takes first place, the player holding the second-most chips takes second, and so on.